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BASÍLICA DE BOBASTRO

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Previous notes

  • It is the only Mozarabic basilic known in the Al Andalus territory.
  • Discovered by F.J. Somonet in 1869 and excavated by G. de Mergelina in 1927.
  • Located in the city built by Omar Ibn Hafsún in an unassailable place in the Highlands of Ronda as headquarters in his strife against the Emirate of Cordoba.
  • Historic environment

    The second half of the 9th century was especially complicated for the Emirate of Cordoba. In fact, it was under a phase of readjustment between the different social groups, since the Arabs, Islamists from the north of Africa; Jews, Hispanics converted to Islam -Muladis- and Hispanics that had stayed Christians -Mozarabics-, Bobastro: Vista general de la roca y la basílica excavadastruggled to occupy their space in an under developed society, and all that in a moment when the authority was still not completely settled. To all of these problems that we could consider of social nature, we have to add a political situation not very favourable, since whilst the government of Cordova had to repress the attempts for independence of some of the most important enclaves, like Mérida, Toledo, Zaragoza and even Seville, Oviedo was being governed by Alphonse the Third, the Great, one of the most important kings of the Asturian monarchy who, taking advantage of the Andalusian weakness, was spreading his domains up to the river Duero. All this when in France the Carolingian empire was at its height, that was also putting pressure to the  territories of the emirate, liberating a great part of the Marca Hispanica and the Pyrenees.

    Within this complicated surrounding, in 880 appears the figure of a Muladi called Omar - or Umar - an excellent military strategist, probably a descendant of a Gothic family, which grandfather had converted to Christianity, and that after a series of incidents that turn him into  a fugitive, he gathers together a group of Berbers, Muladis unhappy with the Arab aristocracy that controlled the power and rose up in arms together with his sons and other members of the family against the emirate from an unassailable castle that the chronicles call Bobastro or Bobaxter in its Latin version.

     
    The uprising, Bobastro: Vista de los restos de la basílica desde el costado nortethat lasted almost fifty years, during the government of four emirs from Cordoba - Abd-al Rahmán the Second, al-Mundhir, Abd Allah and Abd-al-Rahmán the Third; and that along a complicated series of advances and set backs and agreements with the power, breached by all or a few parties, achieved to hold a great part of Andalusia, from Estepa and Écija up to Priego de Córdoba and some spots near Jaén, including also the largest part of the provinces of Málaga and Granada.

    But in spite of the great importance it got due to its military abilities, from a political stand point the results were much poorer. Firstly he tried to get to no avail, the support of some of the governors of the north of Africa and from the coras of Al Andalus that had bad relations with the emirate, as well as those of Badajoz and Zaragoza. But in view of the scarce support he could get from the Islamic surroundings, in 899 he converted to Christianity, we think with the purpose of getting help from Alphonse the Third, what he neither got  This decision, that was the beginning of his end, since as of then he could not count in his troops with a great part of Berbers and Muladis who stayed faithful to Islam, moved him to create a Christian bishopry in Bobastro and to build a basilic, the only Mozarabic building preserved in Al Andalus, with exceptional characteristics, as we shall see.
    From that moment and specially since the rise to power of Abd-el Rahmán the Third in 912, the territory of Babastro started losing great part of the conquered strongholds and it was in  an Bobastro: Planta de la basílica según Puertas Tricas y Martínez Enamoradoalmost desperate situation by the time of the death of Omar ibn Hafsún in 917, possibly buried in the crypt that was being built under the basilic of Bobastro. Nevertheless, his sons held the rebellion until January 28th, 928, when the youngest one, Hafsún,  was defeatd, giving away the fortress after a six month siege. The Arab chronicles tell that Abd-el-Rahmán the Third ordered the exhumation of his corpse to expose it to the people in Cordova.

    No accurate information has been preserved about the situation in that fortress of Bobastro, although it is known that Omar was born in the surroundings of Ronda, possibly in Parauta, and that when still young he fled to the near by mountains after having killed a man in a quarrel among neighbours. In 1869 the historian F.J Simonet studied the remains of an important village, very well fortified, in Mesas de Villaverde, a setting very difficult to get to, above the Guadalhorce river, in the municipal district of Álora, considering from the first moment that all its characteristics correspond with the descriptions about Bobastro in the chronicles of those times. Nearly sixty years after, in 1927, C. de Mergelina discovered the ruins of what must have been the Episcopal basilic of Bobastro, chiseled on a single sandstone rock, what we suppose must have hampered its total destruction after the taken of the fortress by the Cordovan troops.

     
    Unfortunately, or maybe it woud be better to say, due to the sloveliness among the responsible ones, of the remnants of Bobastro described by Simonet and Mergelina along almost 150 years, just a poor image has been preserved and the basilic stays standing for its quality of "undestructible", but a great part of the rest of the structures that had been preserved for nearly a thousand years has disappeared. However, it seems that nowadays things are changing: access have been built and it seems that information panels are being installed. Remains of another three nave church has recently appeared, of which we do not count with more information yet. Everything seems to show a new official interest for Bobastro, still awaiting for a complete archeological research that could provide lots of interesting data about the fortified village and its inhabitants. 

    Description

    If along the whole Spanish Pre Romanesque we have met surprising buildings, unquestionably the most original image that we can find is the one we get upon arriving there, following the recommended way to the esplanade of the Basilic Bobastro: Vista desde la cabecera. En primer plano los ábsides norte y central of Bobastro, after bordering a great sandstone block. In fact, as we surround it from the west, the natural shape of the stone gradually transforms itself into a set of walls, horseshoe arches and pilasters sculpted on the rock, so that the large crag we see from the south turns, on its northern face, into the well defined remnants of a three nave church, forming a monolithic ensemble excavated in the rock, upon which a large patio has been sculpted, that contains a reservoir and remnants of other servicing buildings.


    The basilic which forms a rectangle of 16.50 x 10.30m canonically oriented towards east, consists of three naves, the central one somewhat wider than the lateral ones and keeping the same width as the naves; an also triple transept and three apses, the lateral ones square and the central one with horseshoe interior shape, that lightly stands out from the general rectangle. The access to the apses and to the transept compartments counted with jambs and inner doors to separate spaces, very often seen in Mozarabic lithurgy; all of that chiseled on the same rock. It is also interesting to point out that the floor level in the different areas goes down from east to west, 17 cm between the apse and the transept and another  17 cm between this and the nave, possibly for lithurgical reasons. Under the floor of the central nave, on the west side, we find the entrance to a crypt that had  been being drilled under the church.

     

    As we analyse its plan, we find that it corresponds almost exactly to the same model, replacing the columns by monolithic pillars, much easier to chisel on the rock than that of St. Miguel de la Escalada, with the only difference that in Bobastro the lateral apses are rectangular, like those of St. Cebrián de Mazote. We know that these two churches were built at the beginnings of the 10th century by monks that emigrated from Al Andalus, therefore it seems probable that the Basilic of Bobastro was built between the conversion to Christianity of Omar ibn Hafsún in 899 and his death in 917, so we reach the conclusion that the Mozarabics were building basilics with a very similar structure at the beginnings of the 10th century, both, in the deepest area of the mountains range of Ronda as well as in the territories being reconquered by Alphonse the Third the Great at the north of the river Duero.


    A lot of doubts arise when trying to know which had been its vertical structure. At present, remnants of the whole area of the basilic have been preserved, excepting a small part of the north Bobastro: Nave, transepto y ábside centraleswestern angle, and in those, the height of the walls is going down from south to north so that the two walls of the southern nave are still up to over 3m high whereas the pillars of the separation between the central and the northern nave have different heights; the larger one, a bit more than 2 m and the north external wall is significantly lower. Something similar occurs with the areas of the transept and with the apses. Everything seems to indicate that the basilic was formed by a monolithic part with a height that depended on each point of the original shape of the block of stone in which it is was excavated that would complete its height with an unattached building of the conventional type. In that case, the final result must have been a basilic similar to Escalada and Mazote: three naves, the central one higher than the lateral ones, separated by rounds of horseshoe arches upon pillars and with flat wooden covers, whereas the compartments of the transept and the apses could have had vaults of some of the usual types in Cordovan Islamic Art.


    Another area worth considering is up to what extent the construction was advanced when Bobastro was conquered and destroyed in part by the Cordovan troops. In fact, whereas on the one side it is obvious that the crypt was not yet finished, Bobastro: Detalle de los arcos de herradura entre las naves central y surthe present structure of the best preserved zone, formed by the nave, the transept and the southern side apse, is vey atypical since in all this area the rock had been sculpted to a height 1.5m higher than the other two naves without any access from them, although it has two large windows that open to the interior, with a horseshoe arch protruding a third of its radius leaning directly upon the floor of the elevated nave. Neither there are any entrance doors from the outside nor access staircases to the rock, what makes us think that either it was dedicated to the enclosed monks, something unknown until now in Mozarabic churches or, what is more likely, that it was projected in its original design to proceed drilling, prolonging the arches as pillars -what the structure of the arch placed nearer the chevet seems to indicate- until lowering the whole of the southern section to the same level as the other two naves.

    Nevertheless, its original aspect, as well as the news we have, that Omar Hafsun and one of his sons were buried in its environment, and the rest of the complementary constructions preserved in its large patio, seem to indicate that it was partially in use for some years although possibly it was never completed. 

    Conclusions

    At any rate, even if we will never be able to know exactly its history nor even which was its complete structure, from our point of view this basilic, due to its special characteristics provide us a very interesting information to unquestionably recognize the ruins of the Mesas de Villaverde as the remnants of Bobastro -although some authors have suggested other probable enclaves-, as well as to turn down the possibility that it was a rock monastery quite similar to many others still preserved in Al Andalus and the rest of the peninsula. To mention a few we will include the most relevant details in that sense:
     
    • The first point worth considering is that its is not a rock church in the traditional sense of the term, since in Bobastro there is no intention to use a natural refuge as a worship place, quite usual in monasteries of this kind, based in a small adaptation and keeping largely the original form with a discreet external appearance. On the contrary, in this case the idea was to build an unattached construction chiseling the rock, something quite atypical, not only in Spain but in the whole Christian World.

    • On the other side, an effort demanded for such a work could not have been handled by a simple community of monks, no matter how large it was and even less probable that it had been developed during the 17 years since Omars's conversion until his death. It is neither reasonable to think that Omar ibn Hafsún would have let start the construction of a Christian building of this category in the capital of his territories while he worshiped Islamism.

    • Although some authors consider that in Mesas de Villaverde there had been already a Christian monastery before the uprising that had its centre in Bobastro, what we agree it is possible, nothing indicated that such a significant building existed in a period of severe difficulties for Christians in Al Andalus, even if that monastery had been placed on the same spot in which the basilic was later excavated. However, the recent discovery of another church in the area opens new perspectives to the possibility it might have been in another location within the same area.

    • Finally, the effort achieved to chisel in a single rock a practically undestroyable building indicates, not only the availability of huge resources on behalf ot the promotor, but also the wish to leave a work that could last in remembrance of something that had the risk of being pulled down up to its foudations. From that point of view, the Basilic of Bobastro seems to be the only element preserved from the work of an outstanding character who had been on the verge of changing the history of Al Andalus, and therefore of all of Spain's at the end of the first millenium.

    Between history and legend, this incredible monolithic construction and its whole surroundings still await in Mesas de Villaverde an archeological research in depth while offering the visitor a susprising view of our history at the end of the first millenium, for its location, its landscape and its amazing characteristics. 

    Other interesting information

    Access: Leave Málaga by road A-357 until Ardales. Take MA-444 to El Chorro; at around 6 Km there is a paved road to the right that leads to Bobastro. GPS coordinates: 36º 54' 8'' N 4º 46' 53'' W.
    Information: Red Patrimonio Guadalteba. Road Campillos-Málaga, Km 11. Telephones: 95 271 34 55 / 95 271 30 04. e-mail: prehistoriaardales@guadalteba.com website: http://www.redpatrimonioguadalteba.es/epoca-edadmedia-bobastro-principal.html.
    Visiting hours: Tuesdays to Sundays and Monday holidays, from 10 to 15 hours. Guided tours every hour.
    Prices: normal ticket: 3?, pensioners and children from 5 to 12 years old: 2?

     

    Bibliography

    Imagen del Arte Mozárabe; José Fernández Arenas
    SUMMA ARTIS: Tomo VIII
    L'Art Préroman Hispanique - L'Art Mozarabe: Jacques Fontaine(ZODIAQUE)
    Arte y Arquitectura en España 500/1250: Joaquín Yarza
    Hasday, el "Habib" del califa: Raúl Romero Bartolomé
    Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo VI
    Historia de España de Menéndez Pidal: Tomo VII: Claudio Sánchez Albornoz

     

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